Many youths avoid adult shelters, then must do whatever it takes to survive

Homeless teens expect life of sex, drugs, danger

Spending the night with a stranger, often in exchange for sex or drugs, is the dangerous bargain many homeless teenagers make in the search for shelter — any kind of shelter.

“Women, girls, anybody, if they have nowhere to sleep at night, they take what they can get,” said Stephanie Davis, a 19-year-old living at the Hope Center, a residential life recovery program for homeless women at the Nashville Rescue Mission. “They think, 'Well, that's one night I don't have to worry about it.” “It is a heavy burden to roam the streets seeking a place to lay your head, especially when you're nothing but a kid, she said. “'Am I going to have to wander around all night long? Am I even going to get to go to sleep tonight?” Davis added. “You might just meet (a) person and go, 'All right, fine.'”

Preliminary information in the case against 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown of Clarksville indicates the homeless teen was participating in what is commonly called “couch surfing.” Brown admitted to shooting a 43-year-old man she had just met at a Murfreesboro Pike Sonic. Johnny Allen was found in his bed, naked and shot in the back of the head. Brown told Nashville police she thought Allen, whom she claims made sexual advances toward her, was reaching for a weapon to harm her. He had shown her his guns earlier that evening, she said. At Brown's first court appearance there was no revelation about whether Allen demanded sex, or anything else, in exchange for a place to sleep. Allen's friends say he was a good Samaritan who liked to help homeless young people. Homeless women and men — rightly or wrongly — sneered at that characterization last week.

“People are dangerous. It may seem like a safe place, but it isn't,” said 20-year-old Jase Wooldridge, an Alabama native who has been homeless on Nashville's streets since he was 18. “They either want your drugs, or they want your body.”

“If you stay at someone's house, expect sex,” Wooldridge said. “There's a pile of (teens) that do that here.”

It is “survival sex,” said Benn Stebleton, the homeless youth services coordinator at the Oasis Center. “They're not actually prostituting themselves for money but for a place to stay.”

With Stebleton's help, Wooldridge was scheduled to enter drug and alcohol rehabilitation this week. He's gone through programs before, but relapses have occurred.

“I've struggled to stay clean. I've done heroin, IV cocaine, pot. Pretty much every drug you can think of. Prostitution,” he said.“I have lived under bridges, in parks, stayed with people.”

“I'm tired of living like that,” he said, soft brown eyes looking tired.

Stebleton has been the city's one and only homeless youth outreach worker for the past 18 months. Another worker will be hired next month. A tall, thin, youthful 32-year-old who favors baseball caps and purple Converse sneakers, Stebleton walks the streets, working sources and looking in dark alleys and empty garages. He walks the strip on Fourth Avenue South, where male prostitutes and drug addicts hang out. He peers over the rock walls and toward the riverbank downtown. He even looks up trees in parks where kids have strung hammocks. Sometimes, it is as if he is hunting for ghosts. A tip doesn't always lead to who he's looking for. Usual hiding places are empty; the only thing left behind is the stench of urine and a rubble of paper sacks and cardboard. When he does come across someone he believes is homeless and underage, it isn't unusual that they'll say they are 18. If they're of legal age, Stebleton can't report them to the police or the state Department of Children's Services. Rarely do they want to talk, and it can be months before they'll open up about anything.

Stebleton doesn't ask too many questions anyway. He gives them a free backpack filled with toiletries, McDonald's gift certificates and Oasis information, and walks away. Maybe they'll talk another time, maybe they'll call him. He doesn't push because “these kids know how to run, how to disappear.”

There are few shelter beds for teenagers — 12 at Oasis and 40 total in the state. Last week there were nine teenagers in the Oasis shelter. Young people are not allowed to stay in adult shelters unless they are 18. The kids mostly avoid adult shelters though because there they often are targeted for theft and violence. So, the preference then is for secret hiding places, or couch surfing, Stebleton said.

“Most kids find a place to store their belongings. They'll go there, re-up on clothes and then bounce out, or live out of their trunks, if they have a car. They'll live in a crack house and they all pretty much support each other's habits,” said Sarah Garza, 22, who was homeless at the age of 18 and now lives in the women's shelter. “When you're homeless, you take chances you wouldn't normally take. It is a way of survival,” she added.

Garza says she once dealt drugs and sheltered runaways. They also survived by stripping, by hustling, by prostituting. The youngest she met was a 15-year-old girl who worked as a stripper. Seems no one checked her ID, or even asked if she had one.

Drug use and family dysfunction keep kids on the streets, Garza said. So do issues of mental illness, depression and post-traumatic stress, said Michael McSurdy, director of crisis services for the Oasis Center. Some homeless teens are right out of the foster-care system, he said. Fear is a factor that keeps kids from reaching out, too. They don't trust much, Wooldridge said.

“I'm on guard whenever I meet up with anybody. I don't tell anybody I am homeless,” he said.“I've lived in fear all the time. I'm sure (others) do, too.”

“But you don't talk about it. You don't talk about it when you're under a bridge putting a needle in your arm,” he said. “But go talk to them. You can see (fear) in their faces.”

Carrie Ferguson
18 August 2004

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